Circus is Not Dead

tenacious

waist-high dandelions at roadside, Montreal

Two weeks ago I was in Montreal connecting with Jeremie Robert, a super-talented acrobat and circus performer currently performing with Compagnie XY.

Jeremie and I met through his work with ArtCirq, an indigenous circus in Igloolik, Nunavut, Canada.

I have been applying for grants to travel to Nunavut for about two years now (still no luck) and would love to write about these performers in the Arctic. It’s super-expensive to get to the far north, though.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Image via ArtCirq

Climate change is occurring in the Arctic twice as fast as in the rest of the globe, with a predicted 5 to 7 degree Celsius temperature rise in the next century.

Igloolik is a community on the front-lines of climate change, and also a place deeply invested in the healing powers of performance art. I can’t imagine a better place to record stories.

What is circus, anyway?

I asked this question to a Compagnie XY acrobat at a barbecue a few nights before their first show.

“Almost anything can be circus in the right context,” she said, “and there are whole theoretical classes at circus school devoted to this exact question. Circus art is something that you have to train and study for years in order to perfect.”

(I’m familiar with this line of questioning, though I’m usually on the receiving end of it: What is Folklore & Mythology?“)

Circuses are generally performed in round tents, too––or so I learned from a mini-exhibition at TOHU.

Ringling Bros. is dead, but circus is not. Modern circuses don’t have animals. It’s more about skill and training than flashy oddities.

flying

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If I decide to go to grad school in the coming years, Performance Studies is a field I’m considering. I love the idea of wrestling with the circus question, and interviewing / writing about performers in this sphere.

👣

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Montreal though, what a place. Light tastes different in every city.

circus-ing

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My favorite thing to do in Montreal was just wander.

c'est moi

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Montreal is spiral staircases on the outside of homes.

(I love walking up and down these kinds of stairs. It feels like being inside of a seashell.)

island full of curvy staircases

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…long afternoons in the park, eating fruit and watching the world go by,

long summer days mean more time for adventures 🌞

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… rainbows everywhere,

🌈

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I will take all the rainbows, please 🌈

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… and of course, poutine. (Pro tip: poutine tastes best after drinking local beer in the park with a new friend, and will keep you full forever & ever.)

baby's first poutine 👍🏽

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I think I’m falling in love with public spaces / places where people can picnic. Afternoon light. Fists full of blueberries — blue blessings.

Montreal is full of bicycles. Jeremie let me borrow his for the week.

borrowing my friend's 🚲to explore the city on 2 wheels

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In attending a few performances at Montreal Completement Cirque, I learned that I’m fascinated with flying… maybe because I know it is something my body won’t do.

Is it too late to learn?

#rouge #montrealcompletementcirque

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Why do I travel?

To see more fully. To be surprised. To search for the blessing that sits just outside of my comfort zone. To begin over and over again.

When I travel to a new place, the days are long. Empty and waiting to be filled.

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Before I left the states I bought myself two rings, one for the middle finger on each hand. My left hand is a tree, to remind me to stay grounded:

growing roots

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The right is a feather for flying free. Serendipity.

When I visit a city, there are always layers––the detritus of cities I have been. The shape of houses in Montreal is not unlike DC. The parks that make me breathe deeper remind me of Paris. And anywhere I feel disoriented in language has an odd similarity––I could be in Fiji, or Tuvalu, or Thailand again.

I’m grateful for the sense of dislocation that not knowing a local language can provide. I get lost in the recesses of myself that I didn’t realize were still there.

I am the postcard monster.

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Montreal, I’ll be back. I want to connect with the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (COHDS) this fall, where I have been an affiliate for three years.

… and maybe find some Canadian folks to collaborate with on the audio map in progress.

cautionworkinprogress

still one of my favorite signs — spotted in Suva, Fiji, 2014

More soon. Here’s to living the questions.

~

 

Release (and Dreams of a Performance)

This post describes an “Intermediate Release” modern dance class that I took with Christine Cali at ODC Dance Commons in San Francisco (www.odcdance.org) back in mid-October, 2014. First time students pay $5. I knew from the first five minutes of class that I had found a home in this space, in this new form of movement. If you find yourself in SF, make a trip to ODC for a class. You won’t regret it.

waterodcsf

Starting from the floor up, we move our limbs and joints, one by one, at Christine Cali’s instruction.

“Constant motion!” she calls out over the music. “Don’t stop the flow. Walk around. Look in each other’s eyes. Use the whole of the floor space.”

We shuffle positions to avoid the hierarchy where confident dancers stand in front and everyone else follows. We face different directions. There is no front or back of the room. Only motion.

I grew up a ballerina, taking several classes a week at my local dance studio in CT for the better part of thirteen years. At some point I got fed up with one too many body critical peers and left dance for team sports. Dance led to ice hockey. Ice hockey led to rowing. I rowed for four years in college. On the stretching mats, my teammates always told me I moved like a dancer. It never really left.

This intermediate release class is like flirting with ballet’s older sister. More wild. Free. Unhinged.

Don’t get me wrong––I love ballet. Ballet is where I come from. But for this time in my life, when I have no idea what I’m doing, twenty-two and traveling alone, when I’m winging every day and trying to remind myself to find the joy in all kinds of movement, wherever I may be––the class releases something I didn’t know I had been carrying.

I haven’t felt this grounded in my own body in years, since before I tore my ACL and had it surgically reconstructed in 2012, likely.

~

The warm-up isn’t so much a preamble as it is an hour-long exercise in the fine art of being alive. Trust. Strangers. Motion. Christine instructs us to grab someone’s hand and sit all the way down, to feel the tension across our backs. Its support, lengthening. A stretch.

“Are we warm?”

The second hour of class is devoted to a sequence of choreography that builds. Routine pointing and flexing of the legs. French words I remember but cannot spell. Tumbleweed arms. A one-legged handstand jump. Circling our bodies around on the floor. Not writhing, but almost. Something more joyful. More absolute.

I never have the right words to describe dance. Every attempt feels contrite. Dance is the emotion that comes before language. I acknowledge the wholeness of my body.

Christine’s choreography isn’t tethered to a specific piece of music. We divide into two groups and cycle through many songs, different rhythmic patterns.

“Don’t freak out at this one, ok?” Christine says, laughing. “Just go with it. It’s faster. Release yourself.”

And we do. We do we do we do.

~

After class, I wipe the sweat from my forehead and walk over to where Christine Cali packs up her laptop and shoes, meeting her smile with my own.

“That was the first time I’ve done modern,” I exhale, still high on the newness of it all. “And I loved it. Thank you for this gift.” My words tumble into one another. I talk too quickly. “I’m blowing through town this time around, but I would be back in a heartbeat if I could.”

Christine laughs. “I can’t believe it was your first time! You have wonderful, strong legs. Come back for another class when you can.”

I have wonderful, strong legs? I’m glowing. Body insecurity be damned.

I struggle to love my legs, and no one has ever called them wonderful, ever. As if I needed more reasons to love modern, there’s a dose of body positivity to be found here, too? Count me in.

~

“And you can do it to any kind of music?” I ask Julia, the dancer who brought me here, over lattes.

“Yep,” she says, taking a sip.

“I’m hooked.”

~

Julia and I wander through the Castro after class, pausing to look at window displays of hand-printed notecards with octopi in blue-ink, tentacle arms askew. We take the liberty to step into a chocolate shop where free marshmallows and samples of dark chocolate with unpronounceable names line the walls. I tour the shop’s perimeter, tasting everything. The air is thick with conversation and swirls of cacao, but somehow an old woman’s voice finds me through it all.

“Tell me a story about water? What is that cardboard sign all about?” I can hear the Russian heritage in her voice.

I explain my project. A handful of chocolate shavings melt in my palm. I turn on my audio recorder, making sure to ask if it’s all right before I press record.

The woman takes a sip of her hot chocolate. A man who I take to be her partner nibbles his chocolate croissant, skeptical.

“I teach chemistry. You want a story about water? Here:

everything unique about water can be explained by its shape. Water molecule is bent. Because water molecule has a bent shape, it forms hydrogen bonds with itself. Because of the hydrogen bond, water molecules attach to each other. Because water molecules attach to each other, even with a small mass, water is a liquid. Because water is a liquid, we have life on earth. If water was not bent, water would be linear and it wouldn’t form a hydrogen bond. And because of its small mass, water would be a gas. All ocean would evaporate and we would have no life. We have life because water is bent.”

She looks up, satisfied. I have to regain my footing because I have just fallen headfirst into the rhythm of this woman’s voice.

I’m on a stage, or someone is on a stage. I’m looking down from above. A dancer gives life to her story. The chemistry teacher’s voice is the music.

I barely have time to thank the woman before she winds her scarf around her neck, stands up, and leaves. The shop bell tingles on her way out.

~

It’s a dream, but I envision a performance piece coming from this project. A modern dancer, or many dancers, given the task of interpreting that story into movement on stage. Water and climate change stories, performed into motion. Modern dance is a perfect medium to achieve this.

Long story short: I need to get back to San Francisco. I’ll bike there from the east coast if I have to.

Storytelling and Community

elaineblanchard

“Here comes an interesting person.”

I’m sitting with my legs folded under me on the maroon couch at Elaine Blanchard’s house in Memphis, cradling a mug of ginger tea between my hands. There are four women scattered on sofas and armchairs in the room. A fifth is about to enter through the screen door.

“This used to be a gathering for clergy women,” Elaine explains, folding her knees under her, “but now it’s expanded to interesting women.” She stands up to greet the newest guest and offer us carrots with tzatziki and glasses of bubbly, her movement fluid and confident.

~

Elaine Blanchard is a fabled storyteller in the Memphis area. She has written and performed in two one-woman performances: “For Goodness Sake,” a story about oppression and redemption, and “Skin and Bones,” about body image and eating disorder.

In addition to her solo work, Elaine facilitates a creative writing and performance program, Prison Stories, at Shelby County’s jail for women. Each class of twelve meets for four months during which participants share their life stories. Elaine writes a script based on the stories shared, which is then used by professional actors to create a performance for the entire community to attend.

This past summer, Elaine met for twelve weeks with a group of clients from Friends For Life, a service agency for people living with HIV and AIDS in Memphis. Elaine provided them the opportunity to tell their stories and wrote a script, “Positive Stories,” which was then performed by professional actors.

It is always wonderful to connect with a person who devotes their energy to understanding the art of storytelling, and who pays that love forward by listening and sharing the gift that words and narrative can be. Elaine is a light in the world. Her energy and warmth––a soft yellow glow––is contagious. I strive to pay that goodness forward, to be the best listener and storyteller that I can be.

She is hope incarnate.

~

When everyone is settled with beverages in snacks, Elaine regains her seat on the couch and settles into a story.

“Well I just got back from the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough with my students from Memphis College of Art. Have you heard of it, Devi?”

I nod over my tea. The storytelling festival is an event that I read about in my Intro to Folklore & Mythology course freshman year in college (and dreamed about, because that’s what you do when you are a Folklore & Mythology student). It feels wonderful to be sitting here, just one degree of separation away from the national stage of storytelling itself. I don’t know if I’ll be back in the states in time for the festival next October, but goodness knows I would love to be a part of it in the years to come.

Elaine recounts a story she heard at the event: a mother at an internment camp in the Holocaust saved 55 children left to die in the woods by sneaking them soup under her coat.

The conversation turns to church matters next (this did, after all, used to be a gathering of clergy women) and somehow we end up back at stories of water and climate change.

“It’s odd that you’re doing this here,” one woman chimes, “––in the middle of the country, I mean. Things are slow to happen in Memphis. People are slow to care. We have the buffer of the coasts.”

~

If/when I have a place of my own, I want to invite people over regularly to tell stories as Elaine does, to chat over food and drink.

~

In my sophomore year, the Harvard College Women’s Center Mentorship Program matched me with Roxie Myhrum, Artist Director at the Puppet Showplace Theater. Roxie introduced me to many pockets of art and performance in the Boston area. One of my favorite events that we would attend was SOOP (Stories of Our People) in Jamaica Plain.

Before SOOP disbanded––the organizer, Aimee Rose, needed to focus on her acting career, which is perfectly understandable––Roxie and I would take the Orange Line out to gather along with forty or more strangers in the apartment that Aimee shared with a few other artists. The ticket to enter was an item of food: a loaf of bread or a vegetable or a bottle of wine or a block of cheese. Three or four people would be on duty to chop up the vegetables and get two big pots of soup started straight away. In the meantime we munched on the bread and cheese and wine and met the other folks in the room. While the soup was cooking, its smell permeating the house (sometimes aromatic with sage, other times deep and hearty), a few hours of storytelling would ensue.

Folks sang. There was interpretative dance about mother’s coming to visit from Wyoming, stories of visiting an ex the weekend before. A smattering of classic fairy tales. The occasional puppet.

My favorite spot to watch was perched on the countertop in the back of the room where I could see both the performer and the audience’s reaction. I had just finished taking a class called “Race, Gender, and Performance” with Robin Bernstein and seeing the performativity of everyday life juxtaposed with storytelling on stage set my mind working for days. I loved this new framework of viewing the world through performance, and community through storytelling. The stories we tell make us, in a very human way, who we are.

You know those moments when everything feels suspended, perfect, just for a glimpse of a second? Jill Dolan calls it “utopia in performance.” I remember being held there. The room held me. The community did. It happened once, in December, in the middle of a new friend’s dance piece.

Two months after I started coming, SOOP came to an end.

~

“Devi, you’ll love this,” Myah starts.

I’m in downtown Memphis, digging through my backpack to find soap and conditioner.

“So I went down to Mississippi to visit my nephew for his birthday,” she continues. “His one wish was to have s’mores for dessert. We made a campfire out back, and everyone sat around the fire. He pointed to his aunt and said in the cutest little voice: ‘Auntie, tell me a story.’”

Myah’s eyes light up. “And she did! It was the best rendition of the Three Little Bears I ever did hear. Of course it was my turn next. I didn’t know what to talk about, but The Twelve Dancing Princesses was always my favorite story so I did my best to remember the whole thing. It was probably the worst telling of all time, but he loved it! And I did too. It made me think of you.”

After telling stories, Myah’s family sang “The Wheels on the Bus” and feasted on marshmallows. Stories like this make my heart grow three sizes too big.

Community comes out of food and storytelling––of being together and fully present to share our lives with one another. If that isn’t a radical act, an act of love, then I don’t know what is.

“If you say a word often enough, it becomes you.” 

I am an auditory person. When I meet someone, the first thing I notice is the musicality of their voice––how they let the taste of a word linger on their tongue or send sentences flying into the ether. Breath. Intonation. Word choice. Sometimes my favorite thing to do is close my eyes and listen.

In my sophomore year at Harvard I took a kick-ass course with Prof. Robin Bernstein called “Race, Gender, and Performance.” This course introduced me to the work of Anna Deavere Smith, an actress, playwright, and professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts whose art inspires my own. Back in the 1980s, Deavere Smith began interviewing and recording stories from people across the United States. Then, using the exact wording of the recordings, she translated those interviews into performance pieces. In her TED Talk, Deavere Smith outlines her creative processes and performs excerpts from her solo show “On the Road: A Search for American Character.”

So my grandfather told me when I was a little girl, “If you say a word often enough, it becomes you.” And having grown up in a segregated city, Baltimore, Maryland, I sort of use that idea to go around America with a tape recorder — thank God for technology — to interview people, thinking that if I walked in their words — which is also why I don’t wear shoes when I perform — if I walked in their words, that I could sort of absorb America. I was also inspired by Walt Whitman, who wanted to absorb America and have it absorb him.

Everything I do is word for word off a tape. And I title things because I think people speak in organic poems. 

                                        — Anna Deavere Smith   (full transcript here)

“If you say a word often enough, it becomes you.” We are, in other words, made of the words we give breath to––the very sentences we speak into existence. The interplay between language and identity is at the core of the questions I want to ask of poetry. How do poetry and storytelling intersect?

I started to explore this question in my senior thesis, a book-length work of poems entitled There Are No Straight LinesIn August 2013 I biked 800 miles from Memphis, Tennessee to Venice, Louisiana following the Mississippi River Trail. Along the way I collected fifty hours of stories from the people I met who call the Mississippi riverbanks their home. At times, a single word or phrase sparked a poem. In other cases, I deferred to lengthy transcriptions to capture the rhythm of a storyteller’s speech. I love working with the raw material of others’ words––it has proved to be a river of inspiration. In the words of Anna Deavere Smith, “people speak in organic poems.” Where there are people telling stories, there is organic poetry.

(Poetry lives elsewhere, too, but it is the people side of poems that I am most interested in.)

But my time spent playing with these questions is far from done. By listening carefully and making audio recordings of the voices I hear about water-based climate change on this year-long trip, I hope that I can, as Deavere Smith does, “walk in their words”––let the voices I hear guide my writing.

So, readers: I’m curious. What questions are motivating your own work and play? What questions do you want to ask of the world? How do these questions resurface in your own stories? Do you have any favorite poems that tell a story?

I want to leave you with this wonderful comic on questions, A DAY AT THE PARK, by Kostas Kiriakakis. The whole thing is worth a read.

“I would never trade a question for an answer.” –– Kostas Kiriakakis